Crime and Punishment

I was shown an interesting blog article talking about the Game of Thrones tv series, and the conflicting drives (in the audience) of empathy and vengeance. You can read it here, but in summary it was addressing the way characters do horrible things, so we want them to be punished, but then get penalised brutally, so we feel bad for them.

At this point, I should clarify that I’m not a fan of GoT—it’s too … intense … for my tastes1. Given the popularity of revenge-based stories throughout history (as in, they usually inspire catharsis, not ambivalence), I suspect the makers of the show are trying to portray the acts of retribution in such a way as to emphasise their brutality and engender empathy in the audience. It would certainly fit with the theme of “everyone is equally nasty (and those that aren’t tend to get killed off quickly)”.

It does raise an interesting thought, though. When we see another human suffering, we feel sympathy. If we see someone wronged, we feel anger: we want justice. But what do we mean by “justice”? Sure, revenge is viscerally satisfying, but only if we dissociate from the other party (usually either through seeing them as somehow inhuman—monstrously evil and unredeemable—or by otherwise distancing them—they are from a rival clan/group).

Many stories of vengeance also convey the idea of “‘an eye for an eye’ leaves the world blind”. Our desire for punishment can be defused by seeing the humanity of the perpetrator. Some political parties like to focus on “tougher sentences for crime” as though it would help, but evidence suggests it does not: likelihood of punishment (“Will I get caught?”) matters more than severity of punishment in deterring lawbreaking.

This is all focusing on the penalties of wrongdoing, however (whether via an individual avenger, or state sanctions). And while the presence of these can mitigate our sense of injustice, I do wonder if they are ambulance-at-the-bottom-of-the-cliff measures.

Perhaps the way to make the world a more just place would be to try and ensure there were no benefits to breaking the rules.

But we could go further. It’s also known that people are more likely to take risks to avoid a loss than to gain a bonus. So maybe the real problem (and the real injustice) is that following the rules doesn’t mean you’ll be successful.


1 I do know enough bits and pieces of history to recognise the reality of the political machinations; it’s been said2 that democracy doesn’t guarantee you the best ruler, but allows you to change them without bloodshed. It’s worth remembering. We don’t know how propitious are the circumstances, Frederick. In the Ottoman Empire, for example, a new sultan would have his extended family killed off to prevent the possibility of civil war over heirship.

2 I seem to recall a specific quote along these lines, but I cannot remember the wording, or who said it. If anyone does know, please enlighten me!

Expectations Colour Reality

I tend to be a bit cynical about the self-help industry; it often seems geared around getting your clients to open their wallets and say “Help yourself”. Yet I cannot deny the positive impacts of motivational media. When you feel like your day has been nothing but wading through chest-high blancmange1, a cheery reminder that “You only fail when you stop trying!” can be just the tonic to help you reach dinner-time with your sanity, if not intact, at least not missing any pieces.


There’s a lot of it about.

And yet, at other times, the same statement can seem like the most tedious inanity that ever cloyed its way out of the primordial syrup. So what gives?

There’s a learning metaphor I like that suggests concepts are like Lego blocks, and we better assimilate new ones if there are sufficient others to connect it to2; a block on its lonesome is easily misplaced, but a firmly connected one is likely to stay where you put it. If we don’t have the appropriate framework, we won’t be able to connect with a new concept, so it will seem either impenetrable or silly3.

A similar metaphor can be applied to moods. If we’re in a particular mood (e.g. grouchy), our available connectors may be incompatible with the thing we’ve just encountered (e.g. a cutesy “it gets better!” quote), and so it will be easily brushed aside.

This pattern shows up all over the place. In our biases (any new information about someone or something has to connect to—and thus reinforce—our existing framework). In priming/anchoring (once we start thinking in a particular direction, it can be hard to change). Placebos work because we’re told they will heal us. Over-hyped experiences inevitably disappoint.

Changing our perspective will change the way we react to something, separate from the actual value of what we’re reacting to. Imagine you go to a restaurant and see a particular dish on the menu—the one you fondly remember your mother making when you were a child.

You eagerly order, only to find that they do it … differently. Not badly, just not like mother used to make. You leave the restaurant feeling unsatisfied with your meal (and maybe with the evening out in general). Whereas if you’d acknowledged beforehand that the dish was likely to be different, you would probably have been quite happy with it.

And this, I think, is what’s really behind the common motivational concept (which I’ve seen many variations of, attributed to all kinds of people): “If you can’t change your circumstances, change your reaction”. I found this idea irritating for a long time, because we can’t control (all of) our reactions; if we get a shock, for example, our body dumps adrenaline into our system before we’re even consciously aware of it. But we can control our expectations going into a situation, and that will impact how we react.

If we don’t expect a movie based on a favourite childhood book to be that great, we’ll still be disappointed when it’s turned into largely empty spectacle with an overdose of Legolas4, but we won’t be shocked and tempted to write angry letters to the director. Our expectations colour our reality. Which hopefully is more meaningful with the rest of the post to undergird it.


1 Please note, I’ve never actually tried this, it just seems like it would be difficult (it may actually be tremendous fun). And “blancmange” is a funny word. 😉

2 I might not connect my block in the same place as you—my pre-existing structures may be quite different. We may both be able to lock in the new idea, but because we connect it differently, we’ll have different associations with that idea. Hence one of the values of brainstorming, in that the same concept can send different people off in different directions.

3 When you’re trying to convey a concept to someone else (especially if it’s new to them), it’s easy to be so focused on the concept itself that you take for granted the framework around it. If you’re thoroughly familiar with a concept, a short statement can be deep and meaningful. If you’re not, the same statement can seem vague and airy-fairy.

4 I’m not angry, just disappointed given what might have been. And it makes for an amusing example.